BOORAN ROAD, GLEN HUNTLY
An echo of Ravenna in a 1920s suburb.
It never augurs well for a church’s future when it loses its parochial autonomy. St Agnes’s, Glen Huntly, is now administered from St John’s, East Malvern, a parish which is returning to its nineteenth-century extensiveness, having several years ago had part of the demolished All Saints’, East Malvern’s parish attached to it as well. St Agnes’s has been at risk of closure more than once. Whether the new arrangement will keep it open remains to be seen.
Let’s hope it does, because this is a very fine and unusual church. The foundation stone was laid in 1924, when the brick and stucco villas and villa pairs were expanding over the market gardens of the new suburb of Glen Huntly (sometimes written Glenhuntly). Parish and church grew up together, but now that the demographic character of Glen Huntly has become less Anglo the link is weakening, the congregation has shrunk and the parish can no longer run to its own vicar.
St Agnes’s was designed by the firm of Grainger, Little, Barlow and Hawkins, of which Marcus Barlow (1890-1954) is best known for the Manchester Unity Building in central Melbourne, a splendid essay in what might be termed Perpendicular Gothic Moderne. For St Agnes’s, the style selected was a simplified Neo-Romanesque. This is most evident in the tower with its louvred upper stage – the bell chamber – and low pyramidal roof and in the projecting apsidal baptistery at its base. The general effect is reminiscent of the architecture of Ravenna.
Entrance to the church is through lateral doors in the porches beside the base of the tower. These open into a narthex that runs the width of the church, past the baptistery and the bell rope that hangs down through a hole in the boss of the plaster vault under the tower. On Sundays you could hear the tinkling note of the bell all over Glen Huntly.
St Agnes’s is built of red brick, beautifully laid, with cement dressings. In plan it consists of porch, nave and apsidal chancel, large enough to have once contained choir stalls, and transepts housing vestries. The architects intended that side aisles should be added later to accommodate a larger congregation. If you look closely you can see that around the paired windows of each bay of the nave is an arched layer of cement. This was designed to be easily removed, along with the windows and section of wall beneath the window, to reveal the arches – already in place – of what would have been the arcades separating the nave from the side aisles. The upper lunettes above a corbelled string course that would have become the clerestory.
Inside, the walls are of exposed brick, except in the chancel where they have been rendered and painted off-white. The contrast is dramatic, and made more so by the grand brick arch that divides the two spaces. The polygonal apse is attractive for its discreet use if colour, with a fine representation of the Last Supper in opus sectile on the east wall and stained glass in the simple arched windows of the lateral walls standing out brightly against the chaste off-white background.
There is good use of timber in the church, especially in the ceiling linings, which are varnished v-jointed timber in faceted and diagonally opposed panels between the exposed curved lower chords of the trusses. There used to be a fine pulpit and tester but they were removed by a vicar who carried out an unnecessary and insensitive re-ordering in the 1980s. Their fate is not known. The carved eagle lectern lost its base at the same time and the font was brought into the nave from the baptistery, which was thereby reduced to a purposeless alcove. The wrought iron cancelli at the entrance to the chancel and the choir stalls had been dismantled in an earlier reordering and the cancelli are now outside enclosing a garden for ashes. The Anglican Church used to pride itself on the care of its churches and faculties were necessary for alterations to fabric and furnishings to guard against aesthetically blind renovations of this sort. Was a faculty given for any of the tinkering and worse that went on at St Agnes’s?
The 1980s reordering represented one stage in the building’s liturgical history, which has been consistently Anglo-Catholic ranging from the mildly High in earlier years via the ultramontane and the 1960s “Parish and People” movement (nemesis of the choir stalls and cancelli) to the liberal modern in recent years. At one point the church was promoted as a place for gays and lesbians to rejoice in their God-given “diversity”.
In its earlier days St Agnes’s was something of an anomaly, a thriving parish with busy Sunday School, many vocations to the ministry and much social activity in the form of tennis club and missionary teas yet poorly attended services. The services are still poorly attended but the social life has gone, the tennis courts have long since been built over and the parish of Glen Huntly is itself in need of mission. Yet the church survives and should be kept at all costs.
PHOTOGRAPHY FOR THIS POST BY ANTHONY BAILEY